Romania denies forcing migrant-boat back to Turkish waters

By Nikolaj Nielsen

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Romania denies helping Greece force people back into Turkish waters – despite video footage of it blocking a migrant boat in the Aegean sea.

The comments by the Romanian internal affairs ministry were made in a five-page letter sent last November to Frontex chief, Fabrice Leggeri.

The letter, seen by EUobserver on Monday (22 February), claims they “did not perform or observe” any pushbacks.

Pushbacks describe forcibly preventing asylum seekers from entering EU territory. It is illegal under EU and international law.

The Romanians also offload responsibility to the Greek high command, while highlighting rules of engagement under EU regulation 656/2014 when it comes to migrant smuggling.

That law includes being able to order “a vessel to change its course outside of or towards a destination other than the territorial sea.”

It also includes possibilities of “escorting the vessel or steaming nearby” until it changes course.

They say clearer rules are needed and are pressing for an increased role of a Frontex human rights officer to help monitor future missions.

That defence appears to point to a wider flaw within the system created by the EU, which is then used by national authorities to keep people at bay.

It is also a response to a joint-investigation by the media outlets Lighthouse Reports, Bellingcat, Der Spiegel, ARD and TV Asahia published last October.

Romania had dispatched their MAI 1102 patrol boat for use in the Frontex operation known as Poseidon.

The joint-investigation released video footage of the MAI 1102 blocking a boat of 47 people, likely refugees and asylum seekers.

International maritime law requires boats rescue those in distress, a point also driven home by EU regulation 656/2014.

But instead the MAI 1102 is seen passing the migrants at high speed, generating waves that could pose serious risks to those on board the rubber boat.

A speedboat from the Greek coast guard then arrived at the scene and proceeded to initiate an apparent pushback into Turkish waters.

The Romanians describe, step-by-step, their version of the incident.

They said they had detected a craft heading towards Greek waters.

A Greek officer onboard MAI 1102 then transmitted the info to a coordination centre.

While awaiting further instructions, the MAI 1102 says it “carried out permanent monitoring” of the rubber boat as outlined under EU engagement rules.

It was then instructed to leave the vicinity once the Greek coast guard had arrived.

The MAI 1102 had also switched its Automatic Identification System transponders to invisible mode, hiding its whereabouts to the public.

This means access to its position is restricted “to accredited users.”

Frontex has in the past claimed it does not have such information, when requested to release it.

The Frontex Management Board is looking into 13 possible pushbacks involving the agency.  

The board is composed of people working for the federal police, ministry of interiors, and other similar law authorities in each of the member states.

The European Commission also sits in.

Leggeri briefs MEPs in closed-door session

On Monday, Leggeri was called to the European Parliament to brief MEPs in a session closed to the public.

EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson was also present.

EUobserver understands that talks centred around lobbying, pushbacks, recruitment of fundamental rights officers, and an investigation by the EU’s anti-fraud office Olaf.

One source at the briefing described Leggeri as largely dismissive of the accusations, adding that the discussions in general were not that helpful.

The source said Leggeri announced that eight of the 13 reported pushbacks have so far been cleared of violations.

Johansson had also made comments suggesting that the rapid growth of Frontex could not be used as an excuse for all its current problems, noted the source.

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